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Review: Change is hard. ‘To the End’ documents a fearless foursome tackling the climate crisis

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the documentary "To the End."
(Rachel Lears/Roadside Attractions)
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Rachel Lears’ documentary “Knock Down the House” was an election cycle snapshot of uncommon excitement, its four scrappy female primary challengers for U.S. Congress — including a then-unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — bringing infectious change-the-world energy to not only American politics in 2018, but the usually cut-and-dried genre of the follow-along campaign portrait.

Lears wanted to keep up the female-driven, vérité vitality after that consequential midterm election, and with the attention, awards and discussion “Knock” sparked, who could blame her? Rather than make another candidate movie, however, with “To The End” she latched onto a handful of young women, all of color, doing something a lot harder, and more drawn-out, than trying to win an election cycle — getting politicians to do something, anything, everything, about the climate crisis.

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Her subjects this time around are Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the youth-driven, environmental-focused Sunrise Movement; climate policy writer and Green New Deal co-author Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who wants equity and justice prioritized in the fight for clean energy; Alexandra Rojas of the candidate-training progressive group Justice Democrats; and, because sometimes your sequel demands a repeat appearance by the breakout star, Ocasio-Cortez.

We first see AOC in “To the End” showing up at a Sunrise march on Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018 to give her public blessing to Prakash’s group’s action about climate change. It’s an ideal scene to exemplify the pivot from where Lears left us at the end of “Knock” — with the New York bartender-turned-representative set to become the most prominent figure of the new congressional class — to what “To the End” hopes to cover: what the effort looks like to use a newly powerful voice to address an important issue. She hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but AOC is signaling that in her approach to legislative progress, Pelosi may be a colleague, but Sunrise are still her kind of fighters.

With climate, however, the opposition is formidable. Much of “To the End” is about methods of messaging and allying our subjects use — CNN commentating, rallies, conferences — to push politicians to first take the Green New Deal seriously (2019), then to get Democratic presidential candidates to prioritize a sustainable future (2020), and when Biden is in the White House, to make sure the climate parts of his Build Back Better legislation aren’t sabotaged (2021). “To the End” even has a repeat antagonist from “Knock” in fossil-fuel-funded Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), going from primary opponent in that film to legislation killer here. Until, of course, this year, when the Inflation Reduction Act and its historic climate initiatives gave Lears a revised, more hopeful ending than when the film first premiered at Sundance in January.

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Knowing what happened, of course, is a drawback to a briskly paced, robust narrative built around engaging personalities trying to make a difference. But Lears is also hamstrung by how diffuse her approach is, covering many years, the ins and outs of politics, a gargantuan issue, how the pandemic changed things, and fitting in a sense of who these young women are. This is a movie that could probably have done with less chronological vérité or media moments and more wide-ranging interviews drawing out observations from Prakash, Gunn-Wright, Rojas and AOC, because whenever we do get to hear them, we can see how smart, interesting and perceptive they are, and why they’re needed for the challenges ahead.

Hearing Gunn-Wright wryly dismantle a glib online post by an ExxonMobil lobbyist is priceless, and how she talks about poverty and her child’s future is equally illuminating. AOC assessing the mind-set of her congressional colleagues is insightful. And there’s a pointedly emotional Sunrise meeting in which members, their voices sometimes cracking, express doubts about their ability to create change. Ironically, though, it signals to us a key superpower in their campaign: that dedication to frankness, to articulating the stakes. When “To the End” centers its subjects like this, they shine and inspire, even at their most challenged.

'To The End'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 9 in limited release


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